MIDDLESEX - With the movie theater sector collapsing over the past year, the South Carolina firm responsible for the makeover of the old Woburn Mall site off of Mishawum Road recently found itself with a major development desert right in the middle of its new 23-acre lifestyle center.
Late last month, representatives from Edens LLC appeared before Woburn’s City Council with a bold alternative: Rather than entertain its guests inside, they would take all the fun outdoors.
In a pitch that Edens manager Brad Dumont confessed could end-up backfiring financially, the Woburn Village project landlords are scrapping their previous plan to erect a multi-story commercial building that would contain a pair of ground-floor restaurants topped by a luxury cinema complex and an attached parking garage.
According to Dumont, the managing director for the real estate firm’s northeast region, in the place of the 38,000 square foot structure, Edens will instead create a multi-use green space that will include a beer garden, a common area with room for a winter skating rink and a stage for outdoor movie nights and concerts, and a handful of flexible container-style retail spaces that would be spaced out along a landscaped walking path.
Two new restaurants, including a Tavern-in-the-Square with a rooftop dining area and a Surf Seafood restaurant, will also be built on the space that sits between the development’s 300-unit apartment complex and a series of other new shopping and dining outlets.
“There was no investor that was going to give us the money to build that building. We were faced with this challenge where our cinema deal no longer existed and [some predicted] the industry might not be around that much longer,” said Dumont of the impetus behind the redesign.
"This is not an insignificant amount of money to invest in a green space," the commercial real-estate specialist told Woburn’s aldermen during a meeting in City Hall early last month. “We would really create a community gathering space …Living not too far from here, this is definitely where I would take my kids to grab dinner and go to a [community] movie night.”
Though disappointed with the loss of the cinema space, many Woburn officials, such as East Woburn Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, believe the green-space will ultimately prove a boon for families looking to get some errands done and enjoy a picnic or outdoor day-trip with children.
“I think what you’ve proposed is a great idea for the area. It’s looking great now,” said Mercer-Bruen, who along with her colleagues wholeheartedly endorsed the change late last month after addressing initial concerns about onsite parking availability.
Pandemic accelerating market trends
Revitalizing an old indoor mall property that dated back to 1984, the Woburn Village project off of Woburn’s busy Commerce Way and Mishawum Road intersection is expected to bring a renewed vigor to the major commercial property.
Projecting the mixed-use redevelopment will generate nearly twice as much tax revenue for the city once finished, the new lifestyle center is also expected to attract other developers to the city’s largely underutilized Commerce Way corridor. City officials further hope that investment will convince state officials to improve public transportation options around that section of East Woburn, which sits in close proximity to the MBTA’s Lowell commuter rail line and Anderson Regional Transportation Center.
Since 2017, when Edens purchased the Woburn Mall site for $44 million, city officials have envisioned the proposed lifestyle center will eventually compete with the likes of the Shops at Assembly Row and Lynnfield’s MarketStreet site.
With the site to contain 300 housing units and dozens of new storefronts, many viewed the cinema component as an onsite amenity that would discourage visitors and apartment dwellers from coming and going from the property and causing traffic problems.
According to Dumont, the movie theater component was indeed proposed to meet that entertainment demand.
However, the Edens official also pointed out that the movie industry, which a decade ago could create monster-sized complexes and easily pack those cinema houses full of spectators, has been struggling in recent years to retain that customer base.
The sector had been able to plug some of those losses by creating boutique-style and luxury screening rooms that offered alcohol service, fine dining options and reserved seating. But with start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s subsequent implementation of restrictions on economic activities that attract large crowds, the recovery skidded to a dramatic halt.
Though Edens officials hope the industry will rebound, local attorney Mark Vaughan, representing the petitioners, pointed out that major theater companies, such as the owner of the newer ActLight Cinema building by TD Garden in Boston, have recently announced the permanent closures of their properties.
“The hope is the cinema [tenant] will come back. I’m sure everybody is following what is happening with that industry,” said Vaughan.
According to Dumont, the economic strains brought on by COVID-19 crisis have not only accelerated the demise of various movie theatre locations, it is also forcing many to reimagine the retail landscape as a whole.
“Whatever trends that were already happening in the brick-and-mortar retail business and were expected to happen over the next 10 years, COVID just compressed everything…So it’s really forced us to adapt, but there are some exciting things that we think are happening with shorter-term leases and digital products playing around in this space.”
With traditional retail spaces already losing much of its market-share to internet-based retail giants like Amazon, Edens is taking a calculated gamble in pitching the large green space by also adding several experimental prefabricated buildings to the landscape.
Envisioning that part of the post-COVID evolution for brick-and-mortar stores will involve a pivot towards more flexible lease terms for “pop-up” promotions, Edens officials believe that the container-style storefronts could ultimately become a major attraction for shoppers.
“As you enter that space, it could become that evolving thing where you don't know what's going on in those containers [and want to check it out to see what's happening]," the Edens representative explained. "One day it could be a spinning class and the next day a [new] clothing rollout."
Originally, Edens designers had hoped to include rooftop seating areas on top of those container-style spaces, an extra amenity that the development team thought might prove popular for visitors looking to enjoy a cup of coffee or an ice-cream.
However, officials like Woburn Alderman Joanne Campbell worried about the potential for injuries or other mishaps due to unsupervised children and teens.
Though discouraging that design component for the time being, the City Council did leave open the door for the addition of those rooftop decks down the road.
“There’s a lot of different innovations happening with these temporary incubator spaces. But if the council is worried about having rooftop seating on them, it’s not going to break our hearts. We just thought it would be a cool idea,” responded Dumont, who had envisioned parents enjoying a hot beverage on the platforms while watching as their children ice-skate or play on the common green.
“How about if you think that’s something that will work, you come back to the council for a modification later? I’m just not comfortable with it right now, because we haven’t really discussed it,” Mercer-Bruen responded.